Nine countries (and eleven international border crossings) in 17 days -- without ever having to show a passport. Five thousand kilometres (3000 miles) through France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, then Germany and France again. These are all in the Schengen area, of course, and our purpose was threefold. First, to update the site. Second, to see if you really could travel easily in the Schengen area without a passport: we are happy to report that you can. Third (of course) to enjoy ourselves.
Highlights, in order of appearance. A good hotel and an excellent meal in Slovenia, despite miserable weather; mountains caught by late sun as the rain cleared. The spa at Igal in Hungary (as ever). Crossing the Danube from Hungary to Slovakia without let or hindrance: two countries which were, when the original McTiE book came out, firmly mired in the Communist Bloc. A town festival in Pszczyne (Pzz-chee-na) in Poland. Southern Moravia in the Czech Republic, the most park-like landscape that either of us has ever seen. A wonderful meal on our last night away from home, in Baume-les-Dames in France. And good beer everywhere, except perhaps France, where we don't know, because we drink wine instead.
Bridge across the Danube
The bad bits: lashing rain for much of the first week, made worse by Roger's waterproof jacket not actually being, well, let's be honest, waterproof. A blown fuse, made worse because it has been so long since we changed a fuse that we had forgotten where they were, plus another minor electrical problem. And trying to go too far: doing too much in too few days.
This last of the bad bits -- trying to do too much, along with a lot of other things we learned or re-learned -- is why we have titled this piece 'rediscovering motorcycle touring'. For three reasons, we hadn't done a serious, long-range tour in half a decade. First, there was the new house in 2003 (new to us, though parts are centuries old). Second, Frances came down with pseudopolyarthritis in 2006: it's not life-threatening, and it's getting better, but as the name suggests, it mimics arthritis, which ain't much fun on the back of a motorcycle. It pretty much ruled out touring for 18 months or more. Third, and between the other two (in 2005), the motorcycle had a 'health scare' of her own: a totally incompetent mechanic, who installed an oil filter wrong, with potentially disastrous consequences. These seem to have been averted but it took us a while to find a mechanic whose opinions we trusted. We apologize for the anthropomorphic 'she' when referring to the motorcycle, but as we commonly refer to her as 'the old girl', it comes naturally.
Oh, sure, we had done round trips of maybe a thousand miles a time (call it 1500 km) inside France: down to Arles each year, with a bit of creative wandering on the way. But given that we live in France, this isn't exactly international touring. This was the first serious tour in, as we say, half a decade. And earlier in the year, the 'bike had celebrated her 30th birthday: she was built in February 1978. In other words, the bike is nearly as old as Roger was when we bought her in August 1982: he had just celebrated his 32nd birthday. Admittedly she's has an engine rebuild, twin-plug unleaded heads and various other major operations, but with well over 200,000 km (the best part of 150,000 miles) on the clock, this is no surprise. She had just over 11,000 miles (call it 18,000 km) when we bought her.
Pump, Bystrice nad Pernstejnem, Czech Republic
We now tend to stop a lot more often than we used to. Ideally, every 2-3 hours. Actually, this is what Frances always wanted; it's just that Roger used to be a lot more inclined to press on regardless than he is today. Admittedly on the autoroute or autobahn at 130-150 km/h (80-90 mph), the fuel consumption drops into the low 40s (mpg -- maybe 7 litres/100 km) so we have to stop every 2-3 hours just to refuel: a realistic maximum range per full tank is a bit over 350 km or 220-230 miles. But pottering on the back roads at 70-100 km/h (40-60 mph) we regularly saw well over 50 mpg, or under 6 litres/100 km, for a range of more than 400 km or around 250 miles.
The first stop, June 2008
To judge from the numbers of other motorcyclists we see (and sometimes meet) at roadside café-bars, this frequency of rest stops is not unusual, regardless of age. We're not suggesting that you behave the same way, just that you might care to try it and see whether you prefer it to the press-on-regardless style. If you do, fine. But don't limit your options with our preconceptions.
Something else that we noticed is that in any case, we tend to go slower nowadays. There are no doubt several reasons for this. Partly it is increased age: ours and the motorcycle's. Partly it is increased traffic: when we started motorcycle touring in 1982, Europe was a very different (and much less crowded) continent. And partly it is being used to our old Land Rover, where 100 km/h or 60 mph is really thrashing the engine, but also, we find we enjoy the countryside more at 90 km/h or 55 mph; we turn the wick up only when we are in a real hurry to get somewhere -- which is ever more rarely the case. Even then, we seldom cruise at much over 100 mph (160 km/h) any more.
On the other hand, there are times when sheer speed is welcome. From time to time, we idly consider buying an Enfield Bullet. But the thing is, although you can ride a fast motorcycle at Bullet speeds, you can't ride a Bullet at 200 km/h (124 mph, the advertised maximum speed of our BMW R100RS) or even at 140 km/h (85-90 mph). Rain doesn't hurt much more at 140 km/h than at 100 km/h, and you get out of the rain much faster at the higher speed. On a substantially empty motorway, on a motorcycle travelling at two-thirds of its maximum designed speed, 140 km/h is not significantly less safe than 100 km/h.
On this trip, we both worked out ways of dealing with the rain on this trip -- of which we had more than our fair share, given that it was June. Roger remembered the glorious weather of the first few hours after we set out, and consoled himself with the thought that he might well be riding in the same conditions again in a couple of hours; which was surprisingly often the case.
Kranjska Gora, Slovenia
Frances had an altogether more novel approach. Sitting on the back in stinging rain on the autobahn in Germany on the way back, and feeling rather sorry for herself, she suddenly thought of a spoiled domestic cat, caught in the rain, fur draggled, feeling very sorry for itself. Most of the time, that cat had a very nice life indeed, but it is in the nature of cats to live in the moment. She thought of the cat, welcomed in, towelled off, asleep in front of the fire -- and very nearly fell asleep herself. This is not unusual: Frances can quite happily sleep on the back of a motorcycle.
On a more practical note, we bought some large bin bags in a supermarket: yellow ones, because the black ones smelled awful. With a hole cut for his head, and another two for his arms, at least Roger's torso could stay dry, even if his arms got wet. Attempts at waterproofing his arms with plastic bags and/or cling film proved to be more trouble than they were worth. He wore the bin bag under the non-waterproof 'waterproof' jacket, which had been machine-washed and then not re-proofed with a silicone waterproofer. On the next trip: a Gore-Tex jacket.
We also forgot the 'rain hat' for the Held tank bag, but as the cameras were inside the bag inside waterproof Billingham camera bags, we weren't too worried about this. Even so, it's on the check list for next time.
It is always difficult to decide what to take in the way of spares. We normally carry a few bulbs, a plug lead, a couple of fuses, a clutch cable and a puncture repair outfit, plus a somewhat augmented BMW tool kit. But on this trip, as well as the blown fuse, we had a problem with one of the relays: the tail light didn't want to light. This was solved with a piece of wire and a spade connector, but we had to beg these from a motor centre and garage in Hungary.
Actually, we tried to buy them, but they didn't have them for sale, so they just gave us a metre and a half of wire and a couple of connectors from out of their own stock in the garage. One of the many things that motorcycle touring repeatedly shows you is how fundamentally kind and generous the vast majority of people are.
When we got back, we added the wire and some more spade and bullet connectors to the spares stock, plus a circuit diagram, though we still haven't managed to find the handbook for the bike. One more thing was to solder 30cm/12 inches of wire to a bulb, and add a crocodile clip at the other end of the wire: nothing like as versatile as a multi-meter, but nothing like as fragile, bulky or expensive, either.
Finally, Roger has taken to re-reading the Haynes repair manual for the bike, just to reacquaint himself with some of the basics. It's ideal reading in the smallest room: a few pages of servicing and other reminders are a convenient chunk of information to digest, as it were, in the time available.
Generals, it is said, are usually better prepared to fight the previous war than the next. The same can be said of motorcycle touring: it is much easier to be perfectly prepared for the trip you have just finished, with the benefit of hindsight, than it is to be ready for the next trip -- though one of the purposes of this site (and the accompanying book) is to make it easier to prepare for the next trip, too.
Inevitably, of course, there will be new challenges, or maybe challenges you have not faced in so long that you have forgotten about them, such as our problem with the fuses. But what we're talking about here is much more fundamental. Inevitably, we are not the same people as we were when we bought the BMW in 1982, and even then, when we started touring two-up, it was different from the motorcycle touring Roger had done before that, on his own, mostly on MZ 250s but also on a Velocette LE.
Our favourite roads are uncrowded, well-surfaced country roads through open countryside. 'Well surfaced' may sometimes be asking for a bit much, especially in parts of Central and Eastern Europe (or rural France or rural Germany, for that matter) but mile upon mile of teeth-rattling roads can grow quite wearing, quite quickly, apart from the stresses and strains they impose on a heavily laden motorcycle.
We much prefer rolling or gently hilly countryside to either flat plains or mountains -- which raises an immediate question of personal taste. Countless motorcyclists love riding in the Alps or other mountains. Mostly, we don't: with a laden touring bike, we find the endless braking, acceleration and tight corners to be dull, and if we are riding through forests, we find it gloomy and opressive as well.
If we are riding in the mountains, or in seriously hilly country, we prefer the more open terrain of the Pyrenees or the Pacific Coast Highway -- though the latter is sometimes over-endowed with 'no passing' lines. Roger had lived in California for several years before he learned that 'no passing' in California means 'no passing at all', and not merely 'no passing if in order to do so you have to cross the line'. Lucky he was never nicked for it, really.
What strikes us as most important is that it is rarely a good idea to be too dogmatic or one-dimensional about motorcycle touring. Yes, we love to visit new places, but the motorcycle is not merely a rapid, if somewhat wearying, way of getting from one place to another. Riding should also be enjoyable in its own right. If it is not, ask yourself why not. Sometimes the answer will be obvious -- pissing rain is seldom much fun -- but maybe you are pushing yourself too hard, or maybe you are on the wrong roads.
As a result of all these ruminations, we planned most of our trip on non-motorway roads. So much so, in fact, that we never even needed the motorway vignette in several countries we visited, though we did buy one for Austria. Vignettes are passes that allow you to use motorways; there is a short article on them elsewhere on the site.
We used to leave very early. Nowadays, we try to leave before lunch. It may mean another day on the road, but as we're supposed to be enjoying ourselves, leaving at first light without enough sleep looks less and less attractive. Even so, we try to have everything ready the previous night, so we can have a leisurely breakfast; go through the checklists; and depart in comfort. The gorgeous sunny weather lulled us into a sense of false security.
Automated petrol pump
Room and dinner about 5 km from the main road, following a hotel sign that gave the distance (Hotel du Morvan, 58 170 Luzy). We don't normally follow hotel signs unless they give the distance; we have been caught too often by hotels that are absurdly far away (20 km and more) and are shut, overpriced or otherwise useless when we get there. There were two hotels in this town, but only one was open. When we unpacked the back-bag we found that one of the cans of Perrier we'd brought from home had perforated. Damn! The room was a bit more expensive than we like at 108 euros for the room and dinner, but both the room and the meal were very good, so it was hardly a disaster. Overall, a good start to the tour.
No hotel breakfast: they're never worth the money in France. Picked up some patisserie (at a baker's) and smoked trout plus 1/4-bottles of sparkling wine from an Atac supermarket for brunch; total cost about 10-12 euros, roughly similar to the hotel breakfast. Ate brunch beside a stream, sitting on a stone bench. On to Germany; beginning to cloud over. The route was Mulhouse - Muellheim - Neustadt - Tuttlingen - Garmisch. There is a German entry in the country-by-country guide, but this time, we were heading east as fast as we reasonably could. It was raining; there was little incentive to stop; and so we just plugged on (after a brief beer-and-toilet stop at Schnitzel Alm, Bad Hindelang) until we stayed the night in the Hotel Traube in Friedrichshafen-Ailingen. Room and meal (the latter a meaty Central European affair) cost 127.60 euros: we started to wonder how long we could afford to stay away. There was also a four-euro toll on the Alpenstraße.
It's worth remarking, though, that in Germany and Austria, breakfasts are normally included in the cost of the room, and are worth eating. At the least, you should get a couple of slices of cold meat and cheese, and some very good bread, and at best there will be a buffet with half a dozen kinds of sausage, three kinds of cheese, boiled eggs, four kinds of bread and honey and jam (often home-made) plus fruit: enough to set you up until dinner.
On this trip, Austria (like Germany) was mainly a country to be crossed as fast as possible. It's very beautiful; it can be a good deal less expensive than you might expect; and we have a good deal to say in its praise in the appropriate country-by-country section of McTiE.
The main things that struck us were (as ever) the number of 'bikers welcome' signs (as above) and an ever-increasing number of warnings about the dangers of mountain roads and over-confident motorcyclists (left). There's a picture of another of these warning posters, with the exhortation, 'Give your Guardian Angel a chance' in the piece on toll roads and vignettes (links above and below).
By now the weather was variable: a little sun and 'cloudy bright' (visible shadows, but still a light overcast, as in the pictures, followed by increasing cloud and then finally rain.
Frances went into the petrol station to buy the motorway vignette but she left her helmet outside and forgot to ask for a motorcycle vignette. As a result they gave her a car vignette at almost twice the price. When she went back in to correct this, they gave her a motorcycle vignette -- but no money back. As we came off one of the motorways we were flagged down by the police, who waved us on as soon as they saw the sticker on the rear-view mirror. This was the first time we know we were checked (so was everyone else), though of course we may have been 'eyeballed' without knowing it on other occasions.
Coffee at another petrol station. The room and dinner (at the Hotel Sattlerwirt, 9951 Ainet) were considerably more affordable at 86.60 euros, of which the room was 48 euros. Weather not too bad: drizzle rather than rain.
Rain steadily heavier. We don't normally welcome toll tunnels, but the one at Ferlach between Austria and Slovenia (8 euros for cars or bikes) was a welcome respite from the ever-worsening rain. There were lots of tolls in Slovenia: over days 4 and 5, as well as the 8 euro tunnel fee, we paid 1.60 + 6.90 + 2.55 + 2.55 + 1.30 + 2.55 = 17.45. The toll booths take credit cards, and this is the easiest way to do it, as it leaves a paper trail.
Partly as a result of historical accident, this was our third trip to Slovenia. The first was in 2002; the second, a mere transit in 2007, on our way to Venice from Hungary; and this time we wanted to re-visit the first place we stayed, Kranjska Gora.
Fortunately, the Hotel Vitranc just outside Kranjska Gora was a wonderful oasis, with a bathtub, excellent Eastern European beer and a superb meal, though again, well over 100 euros. Good to eat beef again: most French beef is insipid, being killed too young and not hung long enough. The owner was apparently a motorcyclist himself, and at his invitation we rolled the motorcycle into a dining room that was currently out of use. It was one of life's more surreal sights:
Fine dining for the BMW
Breakfast at the hotel was included in the price, and substantial: a German-style buffet, plus chocolate muffins. The weather was wet, but not as bad as it had been, so we set out. Following a sign from the motorway, we were well impressed with what may well be the only motorcycle museum in Slovenia: we were not clear whether it was the best one, or the only one. It was certainly very impressive indeed, though perhaps a little over-crowded: it was a clear example of a private collection that 'just growed'. Central and Eastern European bikes were understandably well represented, with a Boehmerland frame hanging from the roof of the bar where the beer pump was an Indian V-twin engine (above). Boehmerlands were of course the extraordinarily long 3-seaters, also distinguished by extra fuel tanks at the back.
At the back of the hall illustrated below -- there were at least two others -- there was also a chilling reminder of mid-20th century history: a Kettenrad, the improbable half-track motorcycle used by the Wehrmacht during World War Two. Despite 'No Photography' signs, the owner gave consent readily enough. The problem, apparently, was someone who made clandestine photos with a camera phone and then published a calendar (!)
Musej Moticiklov, Vransko
Quite honestly, though, we do have slightly mixed feelings about Slovenia. It is a very easy country in which to travel, with extremely friendly, helpful people and a lot of English spoken. But it's surprisingly expensive -- prices are more like France or (Southern) Switzerland than neighbouring Hungary -- and the very ease of travelling there means that it is robbed of some of its exoticism.
We got the feeling that we were not alone in finding this a little discomfiting: it seemed that a number of the Slovenians with whom we talked were also worried that Slovenia was becoming too homogenized and money-grubbing. This can be seen at its worst in Koper/Capodistria, close to the Italian border. When we were first there, in 2002, it was delightful. The second time we were there, in 2007, it was clear that it was turning into a resort for Italians with more money than taste. We did not bother to go there on this trip.
Because of the delay introduced by the motorcycle museum we left it a bit late, and didn't get to our hotel in Igal, in Hungary, until gone 9 o'clock that night. Fortunately they still had a room and could feed us, so we checked in for 5 nights, to wait for the weather to improve, get some laundry done, and have a good rest.
It's odd how some countries seem more comfortable, more attractive, than others, even though they may apparently have less to offer. Most of the scenery in Hungary is frankly unremarkable -- there's an awful lot of flat plain, and much of the rest of the country runs more to gently rolling hills than to drama -- but there are good castles, fine old towns and villages, and of course the spas, to which we are firmly addicted. We really like the country. The food is variable, but the best of it is pretty good; the best wines are excellent (and the worst have to be diluted with water to make them drinkable); and the language is almost completely opaque.
Advertisements, Komarom, on the Slovak border
We find, however, that the advantages greatly outweigh the drawbacks. The only real problem, usually, is the language. Through most of the country, German is the only real hope if you do not speak Hungarian. Otherwise, it comes down to pointing, smiling and getting the price written down on a piece of paper.
Horse-drawn vehicles like the above, though a lot less common than in Transylvania, are still encountered quite often in Hungary. Transylvania was of course historically Hungarian, though now part of Romania as a results of Hungary's unwise choices of side in World Wars One and Two.
The number of houses for sale in the spa town of Igal is quite alarming; despite the greatly improved facilities at the spa itself, the town seems to be in decline. Prices are so low that we have more than once considered buying a house there, partly for investment, partly to be able to go to the spa whenever we want. Other parts of Hungary are even cheaper. But it doesn't really make economic sense, and the we both find the prospect of trying to buy a house in Hungarian to be more than averagely soul-chilling.
Each time we go to Hungary, we resolve to spend more time there, possibly with more of it away from the spas (we once stayed in Igal for a week). This was very much one of the lessons of this trip: find somewhere you like, and explore it more fully, perhaps from a fixed base. Next time, we intend to spend more time in Komarom on the Slovak border: another spa town, it's true, but with the banks of the Danube to explore.
On the other hand, last time we were in Hungary (the trip before this one, in the Land Rover) we were within sight of the Ukrainian border. This time, we'd probably have gone into the Ukraine if it hadn't been for the fact that Roger was travelling without a passport, which restricted us to the Schengen area.
Hungary is however a cheap place to stay. The hotel bill in Igal (at the Hotel Peresa, where we have stayed before) was 59,300 forint (HUF) or about 191 euros: well under 40 euros a night, even before you allow for the fact that this included two dinners, excellent breakfasts cooked to order every morning, and some laundry. Dinner at the other place we ate -- M. Jozsef, on the main road, where the food is very good -- cost 7990 HUF one night and 9260 the other, or about 25 and 30 euros respectively. The spa was 2400 HUF a day for the two of us, with Frances's Senior Citizen discount and Roger paying full price: a bit under 8 euros. We cannot recommend Igal highly enough: the only reason we hesitate to sing its praises still more forcefully is that we don't want it to become too popular and thus too expensive. We had a nasty moment when the first cash machine we tried -- he didn't take plastic -- wouldn't accept our cards because it belonged only to a small, local network. Fortunately the other machine in Igal was properly hooked up to an international network.
The weather started to get much better while we were there, though it did rain once or twice, so we set out for Slovakia with a modest degree of hope, despite having tried (and failed) to fix the tail-light before we set out. En route we stopped at a garage to buy the necessary parts, and as noted above, they simply give them to us. This was the Auto-Doktor in Siofok; we also bought a couple of stickers and some connectors.
On our last night in Hungary we stayed at the Kocsis Vendeglo (hotel) in Komarom: a wonderful old-fashioned room and a good meal for 22717 HUF or about 74 euros, with a fair German-style breakfast included. In the morning, we were in Slovakia on the other side of the Danube in about 20 minutes.
Sign on the (disused) border police office, Hungary/Slovakia
Like most people, we find it easy to confuse Slovenia and Slovakia. Not because there are many similarities, but solely on the basis of the similarity of names. Slovakia is however a good deal more exotic than Slovenia, and eastern Slovakia is rather more exotic and interesting than the west. In particular, we like the 'Sieben Burgen', the Seven Towns, settled by the 'Saxons' (a farly generic name for Germans) in mediaeval times. We have stayed in both Kezmarok and Levoca, and it has to be said that the castle at Spisska-Nova Ves is truly remarkable.
This time, though, we were mainly in the west, and although it was pleasant enough, it was basically unremarkable: if we hadn't spent a fair amount of time in the eastern part of the country, we'd probably not bother to go back, except in transit between Hungary and Poland
Once again, this is a reminder of the importance of history. In the later Austro-Hungarian Empire, Slovakia was pretty much a backwater, though in the 18th century it seems to have been a bit more go-ahead. Then, when Czechoslovakia was nailed together in 1919 from Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and parts of Silesia (all of Austrian Silesia and a small part of German Silesia), Slovakia still tended to be the less dynamic region.
Although to an outsider Slovakia and the Czech Republic seem to have much in common, they also have enough to separate them that in 1992 they agreed to the 'Velvet Divorce', which took place on New Year's Day 1993.
Church, Sucha Hora
To this day, you can still see the lingering influence of the dead hand of Communism in some parts of rural Slovakia: the old mentality which said, "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." In the parts that are not accustomed to international tourism -- which means, in effect, most of the country -- service in hotels and restaurants is inclined to be leisurely to the point of sluggish, and there may still be a mindless insistence on handing over your passport so that they can verify your identity. As Roger was travelling without a passport, this could have been interesting, but as we were carrying our permis de séjour (a sort of identity card for non-French people living in France) we were OK.
We stayed at the Klopacka hotel in Spania Dolina and paid 1986 Slovak crowns (almost exactly 50 euros) for quite a good room (with a rather flimsy curtain, but a delightful balcony), a reasonable meal, a modest breakfast and lots of beer. The locals take their beer seriously: they were already drinking when we left just after 9 am.
Church on hill
On the way to Poland we stopped to look at a couple of spas, the Thermal Park Besanova near Ruzomberok (well signposted,) and the other at Vynhe, but the former was essentially an overpriced amusement park and the second was fairly basic and still surprisingly expensive for what it was -- though of course we are spoiled by Hungary.
Yet again, overall, we were reminded of the unwisdom of a too-tight schedule. We call it the "Can't we just..." syndrome. "Well, if we're going over there, can't we just go a bit further and go there as well?" The answer is almost invariably, "Yes we can, but we probably won't enjoy ourselves as much if we try to pack too much in."
This was all a bit of a surprise, as it began fairly badly; got a lot worse, but very briefly; and then became one of the high points of the trip, in Pszczyna (roughly, Pzz-chee-na) where we took all the Polish pictures in this piece. As described in the Polish country guide in McTie, we generally like Poland very much, especially the South-West of the country. We have been there several times, and never regretted it, but this time we had a few hours (out of three days' stay) of bad luck. The good stuff was, however, well up to the usual Polish standard.
The weather was already much better, and we went to Krakow as we had intended, arriving early in the day, but when we got there, we found that there was a festival of some kind and it was impossible to find affordable accommodation with secure parking for the 'bike. We therefore spent just an hour or two looking around and formed the (perhaps inaccurate) conclusion that it's a bit like Budapest: a small historical section, no doubt beautiful but jammed with tourists, and surrounded with a lot of 19th century buildings that could equally well have been in Paris or St. Petersburg, without being as attractive as either. The traffic was hellish, even on a motorcycle; parking was next to impossible (again, even a motorcycle); and the ring-road was impenetrable. Besides, we're just not very taken with big cities any more: we prefer smaller towns and even villages. This was the minor bad luck, the sort of thing that can happen anywhere.
Statue of guard, Pszczyna
After Krakow we therefore went on towards Oswiecim, looking for hotels -- or even just a café-bar for a drink -- on the way. The first place we stopped, we both felt very uncomfortable; it was full of aggressive, surly young men, so we rode on. A kilometre or two later we found a really nice hippie sort of bar, the Pub Obsesja in Libiaz, as different from the first one as you could readily imagine. We both said we'd felt the same thing: as though we'd stumbled on a nest of neo-Nazis. But the bar where we stopped was a delight. We'd have stayed there if they'd had rooms.
Of course, at the first bar we may have been imagining things about neo-Nazis because Oswiecim is better known to most of the world as Auschwitz. Then, something even stranger happened. As described here, we have a division of labour when it comes to finding hotels. Roger rides the bike, and guards it when Frances goes in to look at the room. On the outskirts of Oswiecim, we stopped at a hotel; Frances went in; came out quickly; and said, "We don't want to stay here."
Later, when we had found a really nice hotel, she explained that she had walked into the bar/reception area, and it had been full of the same sort of young men we had seen before. Worse, the buzz of conversation died away to nothing as she walked in, and then rose to a crescendo. She said, "It was as if I had walked into a neo-Nazi gay bar."
We don't want for one moment to discourage you from going to Poland, and as we say, we may have been imagining it all. Even if we weren't, that's perhaps five or ten minutes of unpleasantness in all the days -- possibly even a couple of weeks in total -- that we have spent in Poland. But it was strange, and it shows that no-one is perfect.
Fortunately, we then came upon Pszczyna and the Hotel u Michalika (150 zloty a night, about 35 euros). We still have to think hard about how to spell Pszczyna, and if we don't spell it for a week or two, we have to look it up, but it's a lovely place. Once again, there was some sort of festival on, but it was very local indeed: more of a local talent contest.
To cut a long story short, we liked it so much that we stayed an extra night and had a great time, drinking superb, cheap Polish beer, taking pictures, and eating excellent and very affordable food (dinner was 132 zloty one night, 135 zloty the other, 31-32 euros). The hotel breakfasts were dull, but at least they were included in the price of the room. There are more pictures of Pszczyna and indeed of the u Michalika in the Poland section of McTiE.
On the Sunday, we got on the motorcycle again and headed for home. Krakow was the easternmost point that we had reached, and the 1500-mile half-way point had been reached before then, but we couldn't help feeling that Pszczyna was the real turning point in the journey: after this, we really were on the way home. That's always a bittersweet point in any journey: the excitement of travel, versus the comfort of home.
It is easy to forget that Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech Republic have quite different histories. An often-cited example is that Bohemia is beer-drinking country, while Moravia is wine-drinking country. In practice, we tend to drink beer in both. Although there are not many styles of Czech beer -- basically, light or dark -- there are several excellent breweries and the prices are very reasonable indeed. Mostly we have spent more time in Bohemia than Moravia; this was the first time we had made a conscious effort to enjoy more of Moravia. There is a country guide to the Czech Republic elsewhere on the site.
In one way the Czech part of the trip was a continuation of the 'high' from Poland, with beautiful scenery and rolling roads that were perfect for motorcycling, but purely logistically it was also more difficult. Rural Moravia does not have a well-developed tourist infrastructure, and in many places they seem to roll up the sidewalks at around ten, when decent, God-fearing folk (as are common in Moravia) have all gone to bed. With shortages of both hotels and restaurants -- and even bars -- it is a good idea to start looking quite early for your night's food and shelter.
We stayed two nights in the Czech Republic. The first, at the Hotel Angela in Bystrice nad Pernstejnem, was a better room, but not such a good meal -- though at 1351 crowns (about 43 euros) with plenty of beer, and a good breakfast next morning, we could hardly complain at the price. We arrived just before nine, feeling a bit desperate because we hadn't seen an open hotel for about three hours. The Angela looked distinctly forbidding from the front, and indeed, its interior bore some signs of its communist-era antecedents, with long, dark corridors; but the rooms were clean and modern, and the proprietors were very welcoming, even if the service was a bit slow.
Besides, around the back, it was a different story; much more open and welcoming, with wooden tables sheltered by awnings. They opened up one of the garages to store the bike, and cooked a very satisfactory meal, with lots of good beer, but they made it clear (in an entirely amiable fashion) that if we had arrived even ten minutes later, we'd have missed eating, because the cook would have gone home. And on a bike, unless you buy it the same day, there's not much room for a picnic.
We tried to go for a stroll and another beer after we'd eaten, at about 10 o'clock, but they were already rolling up the sidewalks, so we went back to the hotel for another beer before going to bed. Next morning, the Czech countryside was superb, but the road surfaces were wildly unpredictable. About 30 per cent were excellent; about 60 per cent were average; and the remainder were teeth-rattlingly bad.
Heated swimming pool
The second hotel, the Hotel Stachov, in Stachy, was more of a problem. They didn't take plastic; we were running low on Czech crowns and (this was the stupid bit) on euros, which they would have been entirely happy to take. This was, therefore, one of the reminders: stock up with euros before you go outside the euro-zone. We had left the last euro country (Slovenia) with only about 50 euros, and had been relying on plastic plus the occasional small bill in euros if we'd run out of the local money. Stupid, stupid! A few hundred euros would have saved us much time and effort, and still be usable when we got back into the euro-zone.
As it turned out, a decent room and a good dinner (with lots of good Czech beer) set us back only 1136 crowns (about 36 euros), so actually, we did have enough crowns-plus-euros on us after all. And the proprietor spoke excellent English! There were only two drawbacks. One was that we were invited to park around the back, in the area that their guatd dog used as a toilet: Roger had to step carefully. The other, common in the Czech Republic, was that like most Czechs, they seemed completely indifferent to curtains. We had noticed this before, but apparently, the only use for curtains that many Czechs understand is to stop other people looking in at you. If you are not overlooked, there may at most be a decorative lace curtain; but the idea of a curtain to keep the light out does not seem to occur to the average Czech. If we are travelling by Land Rover, we carry black bin bags to make temporary curtains, but there's no room on a motorcycle.
Next morning, we went on through the lovely little town of Kasperské Hory (again, we can't do all the accents), where the streets are a mixture of cobbles and setts. Most people fail to make the distinction, but cobbles are irregular and setts are regular. The tourist office in Kasperské Hory was especially helpful, with a particularly friendly young fellow-motorcyclist called Waclav (Vats-laff) who spoke excellent English.
Cobbles (left) and setts (right)
Kasperské Hory also turned up an interesting bronze plaque on the town hall wall: in both English and Czech, 'The Thankful Kasperské Hory to the U.S. Army, 6: VI: 1945.' We have found quite a few reminders like this, which are suddenly quite chilling on a sunny morning in a quiet, civilized little town.
...and more rain. We sometimes think that Thor, or possibly Wotan, has got it in for us: we are not entirely sure about weather-control demarcation among Norse and Teutonic deities.
If we take the car to Germany, we can rely on gorgeous, sunny weather: we have many times experienced the Goldener Oktober. But if we take the bike, then even in June it can tip down. And it did. Not for long, it's true, but for an hour or two. Once it had cleared up, in any case, we were winding it on in order to get home. Even so, on the basis of long experience, we started looking for somewhere to stay at about four o'clock in the afternoon: we have been caught too often by huge stretches of Germany with no hotels or restaurants, or at least, none that are open.
And we were lucky. The Hotel Bruecke in Riedlingen was a thoroughly Bavarian hotel, with (yet again) good beer and good food, though prices were inevitably somewhat higher than in the Czech Republic. Actually, no, it's not inevitable. A good, cheap German hotel can cost less than an indifferent Czech hotel, but on average, German hotels tend to cost more (and the food and beer tend to cost a lot more). The Bruecke appeared to be part of a chain.
Hotel Brucke, Riedlingen
Actually finding the hotel took quite some time, thanks to a fiendish one-way system which frequently seemed as if it would never actually lead you back to the town centre. More than once (though not on this occasion) we have decided to become temporary pedestrians, and walk the bike down one-way streets or through pedestrianized areas. If you take it easy, no-one seems to object much.
As usual, once we found it, the proprietor probably spoke enough English for us to have ordered the room and the meal, but as Frances had started out with Haben Sie ein Doppelzimmer, bitte? he continued in German. Sometimes, politely trying to speak someone else's language can be a double-edged sword. Also, as her surname is Schultz, most Germans have some difficulty in believing that she does not speak the language fluently. Room, good dinner, German buffet breakfast, plenty of beer: 103.70 euros.
Unicyclist with helmet
We had hoped to get home in two easy days from our last stop in Germany, but equally, we were open to the possibility of not doing so. It is foolish and dangerous to tire yourself out, especially towards the end of the trip. After all, this is when you are suffering from cumulative fatigue; a desire to get home; and perhaps a measure of over-confidence at being on more familiar ground.
Initially, it looked just as well we were prepared to spend another day away. There were two reasons. First, we made the mistake of taking what looked like the shortest route, which of course was through the Alps: narrow, slow, twisty roads, which neither of us enjoys. Second, the border crossings around Basel are appallingly ill-signposted, and because Roger did not have his passport with him we had to avoid Switzerland. This difficulty will disappear with Switzerland's joining the Schengen area (scheduled for September 2008) and of course it would not apply if you are carrying a passport, as most people do.
Then we had more trouble than we expected in finding an hotel in France. To begin with, this was simply because we were too choosy: we wanted good shutters for a darker room, or the room cost more than we wanted to pay. Then, as is often the case, we ran into a long dry patch, where all the hotels were full, or (more usually) closed.
This is something we have increasingly noticed in France. When we started touring in the early-to-mid 1980s, the Routes Nationales (RN, the equivalent of English A-roads) were still thick with long-established hotel-restaurants, but as the Autoroutes (motorways, often toll) have bypassed the old RNs, the hotels have begun to die back. Indeed, the RNs themselves are increasingly being handed over to the Départements, and are accordingly re-numbered as (let is say) the D810 instead of the N10. This is so recent that it is shown only on the latest maps, and not always then. Often, there are however vestiges of the old RN numbering, either on signposts or on the milestones, so you can check your route; but it can be awkward.
Anyway, this was what had clearly happened here: the autoroute had taken too much traffic from the RN; many of the hotels had closed; and the few remaining were overloaded, so it was quite late when we finally found a room in Baume-les-Dames. Fortunately, the two-star Hotel Central (parts of which date back to the 16th century) was a bargain at 40 euros, and even had a bath-tub: something we really appreciate after a long day on the motorcycle. E-mail them at email@example.com. There was no restaurant at the hotel but the Charleston restaurant was open, and we chose their third-from-basic menu, and for a superb meal with a litre of wine, and coffee to follow, we spent only 65.40 euros.
Charleton restaurant, Baume-les-Dames
Because we had travelled so much further than we intended on this next-to-last day, we realized that we could make it home fairly easily; indeed, with time for a picnic bought on the way. But when we stopped for the picnic, at a municipal camp-site, something rather odd happened. We took the picture below, to show the sort of facilities you can expect at a small-town camp-site: a small block with toilets and showers. Just after Roger had taken the picture, a young woman came all but screaming out of the caravan which can just be detected on the left, and told him it was forbidden to take pictures. It wasn't, of course. He explained that he was taking pictures of the facilities for a web-site (this one).
She then asked if he was taking pictures of her caravan. He shrugged and said that there might have been a corner of the caravan in shot, but so what? She said that he mustn't take pictures of her property -- which is an interesting philosophical question, about how you tell who owns something, quite apart from how much you care. All that we can add is that she did not seem to be French: she was perhaps Dutch or Belgian. Wherever she was from, she was weird.
Municipal camping facilities
We have already made most of these, at the beginning of the piece, but it's worth restating ten of them in simple 'bullet' form:
Day 2: Picnic beside the road
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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks